Papermaking for the Soul: Healing the Wounds of War

Author’s note: I interviewed Drew Matott a few years ago for a longer interview and his contributions never got published. I offer this interview now because his words and ideas are still relevant. Matott gives us lots to think about when he details how he has used papermaking to engage people in civil dialog and healing work.

I first encountered Drew Matott’s work with the Peace Paper Project when I interviewed Drew Cameron about his work with Warrior Writers and The Combat Paper Project. I learned about the importance of providing a space for returning warriors to reintegrate into society when I read Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam, where he explores the ceremonies that the Greeks offered for their returning warriors. The warriors could share their experiences and then cleanse themselves of their grief and pain in public rituals meant to reintegrate the men back into society. Such rituals are largely missing today, but I feel the work of The Combat Paper Project offers a place where returning warriors can share their stories and process some of their pain in a transformative space. But why papermaking?

Drew Cameron and friends at Combat Paper Workshop
Drew Cameron and friends at Combat Paper Workshop

When Matott was in art school in Chicago, he grew frustrated with listening to all the different media outlets-CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and NPR among them-and felt confused and overwhelmed by the similarity in the viewpoints they expressed. He decided to take his papermaking to the street as a way to engage people in meaningful conversations about issues as wide-ranging as their opinions of President Bush, the war on terror, and religion. “Papermaking is a non-obtrusive vehicle to engage with people on a wide range of social and political issues. I was using techniques that had been in continuous use for thousands of years.”

Collection of poems and essays from Warrior Writers Workshops.
Collection of poems and essays from Warrior Writers Workshops.

Matott’s initial projects with papermaking on the street ranged from printing pictures of George Bush and asking people to rate his job approval with one to five stars, to asking if Jesus would be happy with George Bush’s handling of the wars, again with one to five stars. He got a variety of reactions from smiles of approval to frowns of rage over the idea of how Jesus might rate Bush. Matott found that people on the street wanted to talk to him, wanted to discuss issues of the day, and reflected a wide range of opinions on topical issues. They seemed to feel empowered when they could rate the president or talk about important issues happening around them. Art-making allowed Matott to feel more like a citizen engaging in a true democratic discussion, instead of a bystander passively listening to the views espoused in the corporate media system.

Matott’s papermaking and social engagement drew the attention of libraries and literacy councils who asked him to do workshops to promote literacy. His most innovative workshop was “Deep Fry Your Book.” People brought books that held a negative association for them and could have them deep-fried and shrink-wrapped in an effort to transform their associations with their old reading material. What started as an absurd idea became a joyous celebration on the streets of Chicago, as people lined up and waited for hours to heave their books deep-fried. “We had all kinds of batters to choose from: Oreos, sprinkles, and chocolate chip for the sweet tooth crowd; and tempura, fish fry, or cornmeal for the savory crowd. Each person who came to us got to tell the story of why the book was painful for them. “My dad corrected every problem that I ever did in this math book. I never got anything right, so now I hate math.” “I flunked eleventh grade English because I couldn’t understand Moby Dick. Now that it’s deep fried and shrink-wrapped, I think maybe I could go back and try it again.”

All of the folks in the line that day were treated to personal attention, told their story to a willing and respectful listener, and walked away smiling as they clutched their reclaimed, vacuum-sealed books. “We took something negative in people’s lives and through attentive listening coupled with an artistic process, we helped people transform deeply negative associations into positive possibilities. We sugar-coated the bad, if you will,” Matott says.

Inspired by his artmaking work on the streets of Chicago, Matott felt empowered to take on darker subjects in search of transformation, such a veterans’ memories of war and the trauma they carry invisibly once they arrive back in the States. What he discovered about his papermaking is that it became a catalyst for forming community based on shared experience and shared stories. It is as if the stories became woven invisibly into the paper as a tangible product of the papermaking workshops.

What Matott has found in his papermaking is a reaffirmation of the power of art to heal lives through shared experience. In conjunction with art and recreational therapists, he offers programs for veterans as part of the The Veteran Paper Project. Matott leaves us with a lot to think about regarding community, healing, and veterans:

“The end product of our papermaking is actually the ability of the community to have a positive effect on each other. Ninety percent of the folks who come to our workshops don’t know each other in the beginning. It’s through the sitting around the table, sharing stories about the clothing they bring, as well as the recruiting stories, the growing-up stories, and the angry stories. This is how the community forms. We focus on providing the technical skill to make the paper and just allow the process [of forming a community] to happen. That’s actually the trick-allowing something to just happen.” Some people feel proud of their service, others do not feel proud. In the end, they all walk away with a better understanding of what their service means.”

“It’s the process that brings people together. We help the process to flow and people find their own pace. We let the people figure out the meaning.”

“I actually had no idea paper could be like that.”



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